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Smart and sassy

French carmakers lend some quirkiness to their cars that make them stand out in the crowd. You see it in the Fluence, which is set to make a style statement when it comes in mid-2011. The Koleos will follow a few months later with hopes to make a mark in the SUV segment. But can it?

STYLE FILE

At first glance, you will notice that the Koleos isn’t as big as the other SUVs in its class. Even ground clearance (188mm) is un-SUV-like. The Renault Lozenge nose is set in a wide panel that divides the two-part grille and oversized headlights, but there’s nothing true to French tradition about the styling.

It’s a neat, inoffensive design at best, with the smooth shape of a modern soft-roader. From some angles, the Koleos looks Korean and that’s not surprising because it is built and sold there as the Samsung QM5.

In fact, while Renault was responsible for styling, Nissan did the engineering using the X-Trail’s platform as base. Then Renault Samsung built the Koleos at its Busan plant to take advantage of the relatively cheap manufacturing costs in South Korea. The Koleos is a good example of collaboration between brands to reduce development time (which took only 28 months) and cut costs. But as a result, the car doesn’t have a strong enough identity.

INSIDE STORY

The interiors are not up to European standards, although in terms of quality for a Korean-built car, it’s good. This is the case with Chevrolet’s Captiva and Cruze and Hyundai’s Sonata and Santa Fe too. But the Koleos is an exception. The interior fit and finish is a cut above its Korean peers. The plastics are hardwearing, the switchgear feels solid and the vents don’t flap around. The trim feels tightly screwed down and hence rattles are unlikely.

The interior design, like the exterior, isn’t one to rave about. The dashboard is a massive slab of plastic which gets some relief from the large, dash-mounted display screen but you can’t get away from the unexciting cabin feel. But settle down into the Koleos’ lofty perch and you quickly realise that Renault has made up in function for what it lost in form.

The Koleos is possibly the most practical SUV in its class. Stop/start is standard on the Euro-spec car, as are cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, on-board computer, auto-on headlamps and wipers. It also gets an impressive music system. It’s not clear how much will carry forward to the India-spec Koleos but my guess is that Renault will not compromise on kit.

The driving position is superb and all-round visibility, brilliant. The rear seats are incredibly comfortable and offer good under-thigh support. Absence of a third row could be a disadvantage, especially since the Captiva and the soon-to-be-launched updated Outlander have seven-seat configurations, a big hook for Indian families.

But none of the other SUVs have the Koleos’ clever detailing. The fold-down trays in the back of the front seats for the rear passengers, the cubbyholes in the floor and the split tailgate, which doubles up as a table or bench, are brilliant touches. But the best of all is the way a simple lever, located on the inner D-pillar, drops the seat and tips forward the seat squab simultaneously, to extend the flat loading area.

UNDER THE HOOD

The Koleos’ 2-litre 150bhp all-aluminium common-rail diesel with variable valve timing is the same as the impressive M9R engine that powers the X-Trail. This motor is quite rev-happy for a diesel with lots of punch once you cross 2000rpm.

In fact, the Koleos feels remarkably quick and the strong mid-range takes you to serious speeds with just a tap of the foot. The engine is pretty refined too and though you get the familiar diesel clatter under heavy load, the cabin is by and large, peaceful. However, though the Koleos will have no difficulty in keeping up with traffic on open roads, the rubbery gearshift and snappy clutch will make it hard to drive smoothly in the city.

DRIVER’S DEAL

The strong and punchy engine is at odds with the Koleos’ docile handling, which is clearly set up for relaxed driving. There’s lots of body roll, the Koleos doesn’t like being hustled through corners and understeers easily with the front tyres giving up the game pretty early. The steering is fairly accurate but doesn’t exactly bristle with feel and you realise that there’s not much ‘Sport’ in this SUV.

However, the Koleos’ ride quality is phenomenal. On some rural dirt tracks, which were uneven and rutted, the Koleos felt utterly smooth and composed, the suspension soaking up everything. Its brilliant ride comfort would be a huge plus on our bone-jarring roads, giving it an edge over most other soft-roaders.

I couldn’t experience the Koleos in 4WD, which is similar to the X-Trail’s all-mode 4x4 system. The Koleos also comes in two-wheel-drive configuration, which is significantly cheaper. Renault might offer both two and four-wheel-drive options for India.

FINAL VERDICT

The Koleos is a well-engineered SUV with some interesting bits that make it stand out. But is it charming enough to entice buyers? The styling may be too tame for some and the Renault badge, a risk for others.

Nevertheless, there’s nothing like a good deal to wash away any doubts. Renault knows it has to undercut its rivals by a fair bit for the Koleos to click and, according to company sources, a starting price of around Rs 15 lakh for the 4x2 version is being discussed — an indication that even in our tough market it’s eventually price that will dictate terms.

Spec check

Renault Koleos

Price: Rs 15 lakh (est)
L/W/H: 4520/2120/1710mm
Engine: 4-cyls in-line, 1995cc, diesel/ front, transverse, FWD
Power: 150bhp at 4000rpm
Torque: 32.6kgm at 2000rpm
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Brakes (f/r): 320mm ventilated discs/ 292mm ventilated discs

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